Opinion: Helping Detroit entrepreneurs and startups thrive

LeTasha Peebles and Margaret McCammon

While some people may consider Detroit a new and growing player in the technology industry, the city’s passionate and dedicated residents have been founding and creating revolutionary programs, systems and processes used across the globe for generations — think Parke-Davis and Company discovering the first treatments for epilepsy and the nation’s first scheduled news broadcast going live out of Detroit in 1920. 

Today, however, one of the biggest challenges to success continues to be acquiring the funding needed to launch a high-tech, early stage project off the ground. That is where the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) comes in — to help address such difficulties through various programs and resources that support business growth and success. 

Invest Detroit, for example, receives support from the MEDC to ignite economic growth for the area’s startups and entrepreneurs by bringing community partnerships and philanthropic resources together to support business projects struggling with financing. 

Detroiters seeking high-tech business advice or looking for a collaborative space to house their startup can seek guidance at TechTown Detroit. This high-tech hub is one of 21 SmartZones in the state and has played a substantial role in supporting 2,930 Detroit-based startups since launching in 2007, of which 679 were owned by African American entrepreneurs. TechTown assisted the companies in leveraging more than $150 million in start-up capital and creating nearly 1,600 jobs. Committed to having a diverse leadership team that reflects the diversity they want to attract in their entrepreneurs, TechTown hired its first entrepreneur-in-residence for diversity and inclusion in 2017. 

The Kickstart Award winners were all entrepreneurs who underwent TechTown’s eight-week Retail Boot Camp aimed at preparing the Detroit-based startups to open brick-and-mortar location in Detroit commercial districts.

Detroit-based startup Alerje got its start at TechTown Detroit, where founder Javier Evelyn was connected with investors, programs and stakeholders in Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Evelyn is a 2019 Crain’s 40 Under 40 recipient, as well as a member of Backstage Detroit, an accelerator for women and minority founders, and serves on the millennial board at Detroit’s First Independence Bank. Thanks to the connections made at TechTown, Alerje was able to secure $650,000 in funding to develop a smartphone case with an epinephrine auto-injector containing medicine used to treat allergic reaction emergencies, along with a paired app to alert 911 if the injector is removed, making it a convenient — and lifesaving — way of improving patients’ quality of life. 

While there is a high-tech, comprehensive entrepreneurial ecosystem thriving in Detroit, the fact remains that a significant portion of the community still remains underrepresented—namely black-owned high-tech entrepreneurs and startups. While nearly 80% of Detroit’s population is African American, only 8% of venture-backed startups are led by minorities. 

The MEDC’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation initiative recognizes diversity is an important aspect of Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and works to support opportunities for African American entrepreneurs and startups in Detroit and across the state. Last year alone, MEDC supported 1,788 tech companies, of which 71 were owned by an African American entrepreneur, and 12 have a home base in Detroit. 

The 2019 Detroit Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Report identified four contributing factors that would lend to creating a more robust, diverse entrepreneurial system: capital, talent, research and community. With this in mind, MEDC is striving to develop opportunities for Detroiters, and Michigan residents, by:

►Creating programs designed to support researchers developing new technologies at top research universities across the state; 

►Supporting organizations dedicated to growing and sustaining a vibrant venture community; 

►And providing entrepreneurs and startups business services and operational support.

As Detroit continues to position itself at the forefront of technology and innovation, it will remain paramount that our entrepreneurial ecosystem is supporting an inclusive community where African American high-tech entrepreneurs and startups have the resources and capital they need to thrive. 

If you are a high-tech startup or entrepreneur, visit the MEDC website to learn about additional resources and funding available.

LeTasha Peebles and Margaret McCammon are members of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation initiative.